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SCHOLAR BLOG: Seeking out the Special and the Valuable

In this series of Scholar Blogs, our four Skoll Scholars for 2014-15 tell us what shaped their journey toward doing an MBA, and give their first impressions of how it feels to be starting their MBA course at Saïd Business School. 

nikhil-nair

Nikhil Nair

Nikhil Nair comes to oxford with over 6 years of experience in the solar industry. He spent  three years working at the social enterprise SELCO Solar, and he holds a degree in Business Management from Christ University, India.

Thomas Lawrence asked the class: “Do you think everyone is special?”

Almost all of us put up our hands and said yes. Then he made a simple but powerful statement: “Although everyone may be special, not everyone is valuable”.

In the past few weeks since my arrival in this city, I have established that there are several truly special people at Oxford. Let me share an incidence of meeting one such person.

One evening, the MBA class gathered for wine at the Oxford Museum of Natural History, where I struck up a conversation with Joel and Caryn. Joel was telling me that he planned to try his hand at rowing. Caryn also said she intended to row, not just for her college, but also for the University team. Since rowing is big at Oxford, making it to the University team is extremely competitive. So I stopped and said to Caryn, “Rowing for the University can be extremely competitive I hear. Have you rowed before, and do you have any experience in competitive rowing?” That’s when she said that she has been part of the US Olympic rowing team for the last three times, at London, Bejing and Athens! My jaw dropped. I was bursting with questions:  what was it like to be at the Olympics? How does it feel to represent the country? Did you win? And why in this world would you need an MBA?

Unfortunately I was unable to pick up my dropped-jaw and ask her these questions at the time, but I hope to do so in the course of the year. I at least found an answer to one of the questions through her Wikipedia page: yes she won – a gold at London and Beijing, and a silver at Athens. Caryn to me is a special person. And although my other classmates may not be Olympians, I have realized if you listen, each of them are special through their stories and life experiences.

But do I only want such special people and special experiences? Thomas’ theory in class is helping me differentiate between being special and being valuable. To make the most of this year, I will also need to engage with people and events that are not just special, but extremely valuable to my personal and professional life.

How do I find out what is valuable to me? If I had Aladdin’s magic lamp, I would ask the genie to create for me a list of all the valuable people and events that I could ever experience. But when I think again, perhaps it’s better that this genie doesn’t exist, as the experience of engaging and deciding whether things are special or valuable or both, is the true joy of this one year at Oxford.

Interesting events are happening all the time, such as: a talk by Eric Schmidt from Google, an event by the Smith school on GDP & Businesses, Harry Potter enthusiasts playing Quidditch (yes, this is an actual sport at Oxford), or the former Prime Minister of Pakistan Mr. Gillani speaking about leadership in his country.

While juggling between readings for Strategy class, OBN meetings and late-night BOP parties, I continue to look for events/people that are special and valuable. So that when people ask me about my experience at SBS, I will be able to use the same phrase I have heard from several alumni: “It was the best year of my life!”

 

 

Oxford, Saïd, Skoll Centre and What’s Coming

Last but not least, buy Skoll Scholar, rx Michael Thornton, price shares his thoughts.

 

IBITDA, amortization, price discrimination, stocks, bonds, capital…  As an engineer and non-profit manager, all this is wonderfully new to me.  The Saïd Business School at Oxford University has all this plus Shakespeare, Sartre, genomics, international intrigue, mathematical physics, speakers from around the world and more and more.  The depth of academic firepower, cutting edge thinking and variety of geniuses, experts and eccentrics of all types leave you with the impression that the world of smarts is sloped and smartness rolls downhill to Oxford (civil engineers see everything in terms of gradients and flows…).  It’s truly a humbling and unbelievable honor to be able to study here.  And equally and energizing one.  As Sabre outlined earlier, every day we are presented with a hundred opportunities to connect with amazing individuals, partake in events that expose us to fields new to us or expand our understanding of those we know.  We are engaged now in an exercise of choice: how do we spend our time here?  Where do we focus our efforts and what doors do we fight to open and which do we close?

I’ve been an entrepreneur my whole life – at a very early age I remember selling “magical bouncing pine cones” with a friend to others in the neighborhood.  Just as fervently, I’ve always been an environmentally focused person – I remember at four cursing out the developers who leveled the woods I used to play in behind my childhood home to put in a sub-division.  In my undergraduate schooling and subsequent career I married these two as much as I could delving into renewable energy and green building.  At Sherwood Design Engineers, we built a truly 21st century engineering company, founded on the pillars of solid engineering, collaborative design and ecologically sound solutions. We did this through a series of day-to-day choices to not just serve our client’s engineering needs, but to educate them and work closely with them to push as much environmental thinking into each project as we could.   To extend our mission further, we formed a non-profit, Sherwood Institute, through which we spread the gospel of sustainable infrastructure.  While Sherwood Design Engineers wasn’t specifically created to solve the world’s environmental problems, these certainly became true social enterprises; businesses that made a substantial difference (as well as a profit in SDE’s case).

At Saïd, I’ve now been formally exposed to and will have the chance to study social entrepreneurism: businesses created to solve specific societal problems from the word go.  In some particularly exciting examples like Bridges Ventures, market gaps, like insufficient low cost elder care housing or social issues like prisoner rehabilitation are specifically targeted and businesses are either found or created to fill them.  These purpose-built, for profit businesses are what I’m starting to see as a second type of social venture – a step more deliberate than the co-missioning of an existing venture.

The next type I’m curious about is the large businesses that weren’t built for sustainability but might be turned the way Sherwood turned full force into sustainable design, making it a core tenet.  I couldn’t be more excited to work through the Skoll Centre and the host of professors, peers and contacts who have worked in that capacity at various companies to learn more about this type.

The final type of for-profit social company I see as the Holy Grail that doesn’t yet exist: a fortune global 50 leviathan built specifically to solve a major global issue – and make a profit doing so.  Imagine the Exxon of carbon-sequestering energy. With the amount of motivated, brilliant, truly excited people I’ve met here in the last few weeks from every sector, from finance to operations to field warriors, who have flocked around the Skoll flame so far, I now feel that the coming of this type of company is a when, not if, and I couldn’t be happier for it!

This is Where I’m Meant to Be

Part three of our series from this year’s Skoll Scholars showcases Sabre Collier‘s first impressions.

 

Wow.  All I can say is “wow”.

At the end of my first week at Oxford, it’s clear that this is where I’m meant to be.  A thousand- year history of world-class education, cutting-edge global research, magical historic landscapes and an expansive yet intimate community of scholars and leaders- that’s the backdrop for this MBA adventure.  Even better, it includes the Skoll Centre, the world’s leading academic entity for the advancement of social entrepreneurship (and second home to some pretty amazing scholars, professors and practitioners).

After a mad rush to move and settle in, we were bombarded with a flurry of orientation sessions.  Last week”s event was perhaps closest to my heart, “What to do when Markets Fail: Entrepreneurship and Social Innovation at SBS”.  The title alone is compelling precisely because in so many cases, the increasing fusion of business and social impact has been catalyzed by market failures.  The Washington Consensus and donor prescriptions for economic growth fail to trickle down in less developed countries and NGOs stepped/ step in to fill social needs that governments cannot.  Recessions hit, labor markets suffer and unemployed professionals decide to become entrepreneurs (and social entrepreneurs, if  idealists).  Financial crises hit, donor funding dries out and NGOs and visionaries strategize ways to make their services financially self-sustaining.  Returns diminish with scale and companies in developed markets struggle to find ways to grow, and sometimes discover the key is in emerging markets, in the bottom of the pyramid or simply in marketing their CSR.  And so on.

Innovation, including social innovation, is often borne out of necessity and as Pamela Hartigan remarked at yesterday’s session, “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times”. It’s not that social entrepreneurship is anything new, all businesses exercise a social impact just by creating jobs.  It’s that now there’s a shifting economic and geopolitical landscape and  greater impetus than ever for companies and organizations to create social/commercial synergies.

Yesterday’s event served to help us reflect on how to leverage the MBA experience for social entrepreneurship, and broader strategic synergies.  Speakers, such as Michelle Giddens, from Bridges Ventures, or Mike Barry, from Marks & Spencers, highlighted a few strategies such as impact investing and sustainable procurement.  Academics, such as Xiaolan Fu and Maja Andjelkovic, likewise shared potential intersections between Oxford research initiatives and major business opportunities.  And various alums visited with insights about how to leverage coursework, extracurriculars and the Oxford network to achieve our dreams, raise capital and expand impact.

We are living in the midst of dramatic shifts and it’s a real gift to be gaining such vital knowledge and resources to leverage them, strategically and fruitfully.

The White Monks

Shubham Anand, one of this year’s Skoll Scholars, shares his thoughts as he begins his MBA in Oxford.

Three White Monks by MASSON Henri Léopold

It is a universal human quest to search for a grand unifying theory. The physicists are almost there with the recent discovery of the Higgs-Boson or the God particle. Prof Fritjof Capra in his famous book “The Tao of Physics” takes it still further and asserts based on his deep personal experience that both physics and metaphysics ineluctably lead to the same conclusions. Similarly, in almost every field of knowledge scholars and practitioners alike constantly strive to reach that one point on the evolutionary continuum where everything merges into oneness. Some call it Nirvana.

There is however one notable exception, the field of Business Management. Here the dichotomies are very stark. Very ironic for a field that is essentially a melting pot of various disciplines. There is a constant tension between social, environmental and financial goals. The frameworks to integrate these differing objectives are still at a very nascent stage. The corrective endeavours have just begun.

Why is it so particularly important to find the common ground? Why bother? The existing MBA community collectively controls resources worth hundreds of billions of dollars and the future MBAs will eventually control even greater amounts. They exercise an enormous influence over governments worldwide. The decisions they take affect millions of people across the globe. The financial crisis of 2008 has shown how their actions have the power to even derail world economies and as they say with great powers come great responsibilities.

The question is does a common ground really exist? My initial conversations with my SBS classmates give me a sense that everyone is more or less grappling with this question. Often these discussions bring up issues of values, priorities, passions, complexity and more. There are obviously no easy solutions but perhaps the answer, to the challenge of finding the common ground, lies buried deep in the gardens of Saїd Business School. This is perhaps the best kept secret of this wonderful institution.

The land where the Saїd Business School stands was once, the seat of higher learning for monks belonging to the Cistercian Order, called the Rewely Abbey or the Royal Monastery. Its inmates were famously known as the White Monks.

How does this relate to the world of business management? That is an enigma which we must collectively resolve over the course of this year. The answers may surprise, enrich and profoundly influence the very core of one’s being!!!

What Barack Obama and Social Enterprise Have in Common

With the new academic year kicking off, the debates and discussions are well underway.   Skoll Scholar Mark Hand takes a moment to reflect.

Image: "Watch" by famousafterdeath

During the 2008 US presidential election, then-candidate Barack Obama described himself as a human Rorschach test, an amorphous inkblot in response which Americans revealed their own motivations, biases, hopes and fears. Social enterprise, I have found, has similar inkblot qualities. In two years as an impact investor, I’ve met i-bankers looking to social enterprise to provide more meaningful work, nonprofiteers seeking rigor and efficiency (and/or higher paychecks), and college students spotting an opportunity to make a mark in a increasingly high-profile field. Within the world of social enterprise stand a number of Ayn Rand acolytes convinced that The Market–being the answer to everything–is the natural path to poverty eradication; in the same arena exist leftists with dreams of transforming the financial system through the Trojan Horse of patient capital. Conversations about social enterprise, like conversations about Barack Obama, can reveal more about speaker than topic.

That’s fine with me: I am much more interested in what attracts people to social enterprise than in nomenclature. What motivates them? What values do they hold dear? What issues do they care about? What kind of environment do they want to work in? How risk-tolerant are they in their career? What do they get a little nutty about? As befits an incoming MBA, I have spent much of that summer searching for my own answers to those questions. I have a long-held interest in the US’s relationship to Latin America and Hispanic migration to the US, for example. I enjoy teaching and learning in equal measure. I gravitate toward other people–especially entrepreneurs–that are building things and tackling issues where others won’t. I get energy from the tension that comes from putting disparate cultures, ideas, and people in conversation.

In social enterprise I spot one opportunity to pull those thing together. But those motivations are my own, and the motivations of my classmates are as diverse as the countries and industries we come from. Over the next year I look forward to hearing my classmates’ answers to these questions as we argue the parameters, promise, and pitfalls of social enterprise.

Announcing the 2012-2013 Skoll Skollars!

The Centre is proud to introduce our newest Skoll Skollars!

After a rigorous search, viagra dosage four fantastic social entrepreneurs who have (and will continue to) make significant contributions to the field of social entrepreneurship have been selected.  Congratulations Shubham, sick Sabre, sale Mark and Michael.

We can’t wait for you to join us next year!

The annual Skoll Scholarship funds social entrepreneurs to undertake their MBA at Sa?d Business School and welcomes them into a community of innovators spread across the globe (now 43 strong over 9 classes).

It was a difficult process and we’d like to thank all the amazing candidates we met along the way. We look forward to having you all with us next year and making social impact happen together.